Paul de Zylva on bees, valuing nature and the role of NGOs

By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

By Harriet Bradley

Source: Friends of the Earth

Source: Friends of the Earth

 

Paul de Zylva is Head of Nature at Friends of the Earth [FOE]. He designed and is running FOE’s current campaign – The Bee Cause – launched on April 11 2012. Two years from its launch, they’re on the verge of getting a National Pollinator Strategy [NPS] from the Government.

Q: What motivated you to set up The Bee Cause?

A: The organisation was looking for a new campaign. We’d done a lot of work on energy and climate change issues but we weren’t doing much about the natural environment. There was a lot of concern about the issue of bee decline, there were a lot of organisations working on bees – but I think FOE is an organization dealing with the ‘root-cause’ problem – and no one was looking at all the causes of bee decline together. And that felt like an opportunity to work on an issue about bees, but that’s also really about our relationship to, or our mismanagement of, nature.

Q: Was there something particularly dramatic happening at the time in terms of bee populations?

A: Not really, no. There had been a decline in honeybees over a 20-year period between 1985 and 2005. The Government had funded some research into the pests and diseases of managed honeybee colonies, but no one was looking at wild bees and broader pollinators, or joining up the causes of decline. I thought that was the space FOE could occupy in a way that wouldn’t threaten other organisations and that would give people lots of interesting angles on the issue.

Q: So you get a form of competition between campaigning organisations?

A: There’s always a bit of healthy competition and collaboration among campaign groups but with The Bee Cause we’ve helped by bringing together the issues in a coherent way. Although the issue is already popular, it isn’t any easier because it touches on so many tough and potentially controversial issues such as what is the role of farming in relation to the natural environment? What is the role of chemicals in relation to species?

Q: Why do you think The Bee Cause is a policy issue?

A: Because there was a policy vacuum. We launched the campaign with a report from the University of Reading who said the issues are about farming, pesticide exposure, loss of habitat, the way we develop our towns and cities and, for managed colonies of honeybees, about pests and diseases and the danger of them migrating into the wild bee population. And then they’re about those causes interacting.

The Government was putting a lot of money into honeybee research, but there wasn’t a huge amount of policy detail. If the Government’s draft plan being developed now is half good, it will fill quite a lot of that policy gap. I think that whilst we live in an age of “Big Society” and localism, the public still looks to Government to lead. If the Government doesn’t have a policy on an issue, why would the public act?

Q: Do you think the economic and social benefits that bees provide explain the Government taking an interest in this particular issue?

A: Yes- that as well. The day we launched the campaign we led in our press release with the fact that if we had to pollinate crops in the UK by hand, it would cost farmers an extra £1.8 billion a year, and that would go on food bills. And that got political attention.

We had support from 250 MPs across the party divide backing our call for a bee action plan in the UK. I think they saw the sense that in an era when everyone’s talking about food security and valuing the natural environment more, are you really going to ignore the problem of bee decline?

Q: What is Friends of the Earth’s relationship to policy makers, how does it influence them and the policy agenda?

A: Sometimes it’s through formal channels- changing or using the law has been a theme of FOE’s work over the decades; we like to get our policy positions right and base those on good research. Democracy may not be perfect and in many ways it doesn’t work anywhere near what it needs to for the challenges we face on the climate and the natural environment. But can you do campaigning and advocacy without policy? Probably not. You’ve got to stand for something.

But policy work is more subtle than just going in at legislative level. Direct meetings with ministers I think is increasingly the theme of our times. And a lot of policy stems from working with decision-makers in business or civil society.

Q: Like working with business?

A: Yes, we are working with certain business interests through the bees campaign like B&Q, M&S, the Co-operative, Waitrose, Sainsburys. There are increasingly in my view pennies dropping around whole different sectors of society about what climate and a diminishing natural world means for farming, business supply chains, and civic society. Companies like Puma have looked at the whole effect on the natural environment of their product chain. The bottom line is that if they had to pay the true cost of what impact they have on the environment they would be out of business.

Q: Are you up against other lobbyists working behind the scenes with opposing interests?

A: Yes, they are there but I think that’s the name of the game. You know that they’re probably doing some stuff behind the scenes which is representing their interests. Equally, I think it’s been very powerful for us to be able to show to ministers the businesses and civic society organisations that we are working with.

Q: Do you feel a pressure to place a cost on things?

A: The valuation of nature is quite contentious. My colleagues are concerned about the unproven market-based ‘financialization’ of nature. You can never put an accurate price on nature, but if you give some indicative figures it focuses the mind and sets off a debate that policymakers are never going to do without that focus.

The test of the valuation of nature debate is whether it starts to turn round the decline of nature, and if that change leads to changes in policy fields but also within business practices. If it’s simply another case of destroying nature because we’ve managed to sell it to the highest bidder, then that’s not a change, that’s just creating a market.

Q: So do think that we need a national or international solution, along the lines of the European Commission’s ban on some pesticides linked to bee decline.

A: It’s a 2-year restriction until 2015 on some uses of three neonicotinoids. It got loads of interest from North America and Canada, because they’re having the same kind of debate there. But obviously pesticides are only part of the problem.

Q: What do you see as the long-term solution – do we need to rethink our agricultural system?

A: Oh yes. We need to rethink a lot. The latest Common Agricultural Policy reforms promised to ‘green the CAP’ and they’ve been a huge let down- a lot of lobbying behind the scenes has stopped the reforms that were needed. There’s a lively debate about whether we need to continue to just squeeze the land to grow more crops, or whether there’s a better way of feeding mouths other than squeezing the life out of our farmland. Bees have brought about that debate on pesticides, but it also needs to apply to the urban environment.

So yes, transformational change is what we need, but it will probably happen in increments, and occasional shocks to the system. The job of a campaigning organisation like FOE is to use those issues but be ready for them as well. That’s the world of campaigning- it’s about that basic human spirit that you can make a difference. There is a view held by some in certain organisations that charities shouldn’t be campaigning for change, charities should just do good works. It’s come to the fore recently in the whole debate about the Lobbying Bill, where the constraints are now put on charities in the run up to a General Election.

Q: So do you think those restrictions have come from those sorts of voices?

A: Partly, I think there’s a healthy debate about what a charity should be. We are confronting some of the big issues of the day, on pollution, energy, traffic, redevelopment, green space- I think that’s as much ‘Big Society’ and civil action and civic pride as anything. We fundamentally believe that good decision-making and good governance is what’s needed if we’re going to turn around some of these problems, and get away from the idea that somehow just by making the economy better everything will be okay.

For example there’s a rescue job needed on sustainable development to reclaim what it means, rather than just say it’s the economy comes first and everything else comes last. There has been a hijacking in some cases of sustainability – enough industries putting the word ‘sustainable’ in front of words like ‘aviation’. Words become normalized, but you then have to challenge their usage to hold people to account and hold true what is really meant by those things.

Q: Perhaps costing nature could be a way of drawing attention to problems not traditionally seen to come into economic calculations?

A: It’s a way of garnering attention, you need to know where the risks are. Some of our colleagues in southern countries- in Africa, Asia, South America in particular, are very suspicious of the financialization of nature. They’ve experienced this with an initiative called REDD and REDD+, where incentives have been given to continue to destroy rainforest or virgin forest because companies get subsidized to plant oil palm plantations.

Q: That seems to undermine theories that the wealthier a country becomes, the more likely they are to care about environmental, as opposed to ‘materialist’ issues.

A: There is some evidence, but it’s too easy and increasingly inaccurate to say it’s only the rich who care about the environment. I think the challenge is that people engage with nature and the environment irrespective, but if they’re not asked the right questions, if they’re told what to think, or they’re not given the chance to explore real choices, they’ll give the usual answers; that they’re not interested, or they need a job to put food on the table. We work with a lot of communities of environmental campaigners who are not wealthy, like those in North East England facing the worst excesses of industrial pollution. If you go to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, a lot of groups in Africa, there are people trying to do similar stuff against the odds.

Our job, as FOE nationally and internationally, is to empower those people to get a bit more traction on the issues to start doing stuff. Who holds the power and in whose interests are always good questions to ask. Just because you’ve identified the answers to those doesn’t mean you’ve solved the problem, but you map out who you need to work with. I think some institutions, organisations and decision-makers are starting to think the world is changing.

Q: Do you mean in terms of climate change?

A: Yes, some businesses are thinking far longer than most governments and some departments of state are prepared to think far longer than any term of office. The challenge to groups like us is always to make these things far more accessible than government ever will, and then reflect back to government and decision-makers that they are responsible.

Q: So you have more of a capacity to take a longer-term perspective?

A: Climate change is a long-term issue, but it’s also a short-term issue. If you look beneath the public opinion polls of what gets reported in the media, there are some fundamental questions facing every society, community, locality, about the things that really matter. And they tend not to be the things that get most of the public debate or media attention.

Q: That conveys a more positive view of human nature- that people do want to know about these things.

A: I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t positive. FOE and other organisations spent 40 years putting the environment on the agenda. Now we’ve got it there, we’re trying to work out where that goes next. And one of the key things is that it isn’t just a separate issue – it’s fundamental to all the questions about quality of life, wealth, welfare, wellbeing, health, human rights – whether it’s comparing Teesside to Dorking, or the Thames Valley to Thailand.

There’s trouble down-under: UNESCO recommendations and the Great Barrier Reef

By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

By Harriet Bradley

Source: http://www.brisvaani.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Abbot-Point-coal-point.jpg

Source: http://www.brisvaani.com

Over the last 50 years pollution, over-fishing, tourism and climate change, among other factors, has caused coral reefs to decline by an estimated 80% in some parts of the world, and could reach 60% globally by 2050. Scientists at the Catlin Group – who have been documenting this decline since 2012 – note that the impact could extend to 500 million people in communities across the world relying on the reefs for food, tourism, and coastal protection. Whereas, if coral reefs were maintained in good condition, they could benefit the world by $30 billion a year.

In January 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved plans to dump dredged sediment (a by-product of plans to create one of the world’s biggest coastal coal ports at Abbot Point) in some areas, which, some scientists warn, could poison the reef. This decision disregarded opposition from numerous environmental groups and a letter signed by 233 scientists calling the GBRMPA to reject the plan. In this case, short-term economic interests appear pitted against longer-term economic and environmental ones. And those with the authority to act are currently backing the former.

There does not have to be such an incompatibility between economic activities and environmental activity. Indeed, the fact that the Catlin Group – which has been funding a global survey of coral reefs since 2012 – is a specialty insurance firm suggests not only the increasing complexity of the relationship between the economy and the environment, but also the emerging realisation in some quarters of the long-term economic risks of environmental destruction.

A casualty of this saga has been ‘objective’ scientific assessment. It has been blurred by the ‘green-light’ assessment of the Ports Australia report and the mining industry, represented by the Queensland Resource Council, who endorse dredging as environmentally safe. This conflicts with the report of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). This represents a common trend where science is being vied for in politics, rather than being considered objectively.

The politics of the issue escalated to the international level in late April 2014, following UNESCO’s recommendation to consider the reef for its List of World Heritage in Danger at its 39th session in 2015. This could present an opportunity to change – or at least put the unwelcome international spotlight on – the current preferences of the Australian government. However, the Queensland Environment Minister, Andrew Powell, denied that the government would follow UNESCO’s recommendation. The implication is that such a move by UNESCO would involve significant reputational damage to the Queensland and Australian governments, especially given the increasingly important role that coral reefs may play in protecting coasts from sea-level rises associated with climate change. Whatever the outcome, the episode will provide evidence on whether international monitoring bodies like UNESCO have the power to impose reputational costs and whether these will lead to a change in regulatory policy from the Australian government.

 

Dr Lisa Vanhala on the courts, human rights and climate change

By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

By Harriet Bradley

Dr Lisa Vanhala is Director of the Human Rights masters programme at UCL’s School of Public Policy. Her research relating to environmental issues focuses on why some environmental NGOs pursue legal action whilst others do not and why we see a judicialization of climate change politics in some countries and not others. This interview reflects on Dr Vanhala’s previous and ongoing work in these areas, and also on the link between environmental issues, climate change and human rights.

HB: Could you give an outline of the major themes to do with the role of courts in the climate change debate?

LV: It’s a literature in the sub-field of law and courts in political science that is interested in how courts weigh in on policy-making decisions. Most judges say their job isn’t to be policy-makers, it’s to act as a check and balance on other institutions in a democratic system, but increasingly we do see them overturning or challenging the decisions of legislatures.

But courts don’t just act when they want to: they have to be beckoned by litigants. Some of my previous work looked at some of the hurdles that stop citizens or NGOs interested in acting on environmental issues from taking cases to court. For example, in the UK it’s very expensive and although rules saying that only individuals not NGOs were allowed to bring a case have changed a lot over the last 20 or 30 years, it’s starting to narrow again with some policy-makers trying to restrict access to the courts.

The project I’m starting now is interested in the judicialization of climate change politics: whether we see more decisions shifting away from legislatures and executives into judicial arenas. Certainly in the US we’ve seen that: the Senate failed in 2010 to pass a climate change bill, there’s no really effective federal climate legislation, but we have seen a number of Supreme Court decisions that do talk about regulating emissions. So I’m interested in exploring whether that’s true in other countries and what impact this has on policy.

HB: Is there an example that you can pick out of the kind of case you might see being brought to a court?

LV: There aren’t as many as you might think. My research looked at the UK and Canada and Australia and it depends on what you count as a climate change case. Certainly the most quintessential case is ‘Massachusetts versus the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]’ in 2007, brought by I think 10 or 12 states allied with some cities and some NGOs, claiming that under the Clean Air Act- developed in the 60s and 70s to regulate air pollution- the EPA should be limiting Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The court did say, yes, under the Clean Air Act the EPA has been mandated to make the decision about whether to regulate GHG emissions.

HB: Could you comment about the variety of litigants that you get, beyond victims of pollution?

LV: It’s a good point- we always think about “eco-warriors” taking cases to court, particularly in the US because there’s a real culture of litigation there. But a lot of corporates will sue each other, for example for violating the UK Climate Change Act. It’s really a form of competition in the courtroom. You have cases of cement factories suing each other, and there’s quite a bit of wind farm litigation in Australia and the UK. Litigants are of all types and really with climate change the difficulty is finding the causal linkage between perpetrators and the harm that is done and who the victims really are. In some sense we’re all victims when it comes to climate change.

HB: Is that why you’ve challenged the idea in the literature that the courts are simply ‘filling a policy gap’ left by institutions and governments? It seems a bit more complex.

LV: Yes, part of what motivated that paper [Vanhala, 2013] was my methodological interest and teaching Advanced Qualitative Methods and thinking about things like selection bias in case selection. Everyone making this argument about courts filling a policy gap was looking at the US case; there’s no federal legislation there and the courts were starting to act. It’s a really important jurisdiction: up until recently they were the biggest emitters and over history they’ve been the largest emitters. But there a lots of other conditions that led to the courts stepping in – the environment legislation which was really quite progressive in the 60s and 70s created provisions for citizens to take litigation. In a way they saw this as a normal part of citizens participating in environmental democracy.

Thinking about Canada, they have no legislation at the national level, they’ve since rescinded on their Kyoto commitments, but you also don’t see any real activity in the courts – it’s raised this other puzzle of why are groups not doing more there? Particularly in a jurisdiction where you have the oil sands that’s going to lead to huge emissions. That’s what the next step of my research is trying to get at: are there hurdles that groups or citizens are facing there that don’t allow them to take litigation or do they just see it as a hopeless cause? I think a lot of Canadians would see themselves as less litigious than Americans, but in other areas – for example my previous work on disability, groups were really active there in taking cases to court. So I think something quite specific could be going on in environmental policy-making, which suggests the link between a lack of policy and the courts stepping in is more complex than what some previous scholars had said.

HB: Moving on to the issue of climate change as a human rights issue- what do you see as the link between the two?

LV: I think the consensus in the literature and one that I certainly subscribe to is that climate change and its impacts are going to become a really serious human rights issue- and in some places they already are.

There are a number of different dimensions on which we can think that climate change might impact or influence people’s human rights- fundamental things to do with the right to life, or the right to clean water and food. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th assessment report suggests that some countries, such as the Maldives and other Least Developed Countries or Small Island Developing States, won’t be in existence in 100 years time if sea levels rise the way that we predict they will, challenging the fundamental right to exist.

I’m still trying to digest the literature on human rights as a solution to the climate change problem- whether these rights are enforceable and practicable. Human rights are very individualistic notions of a right against the threat of climate change whereas actually the challenge of climate change requires overcoming a collective action problem.

HB: Is there anything in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that outlines those rights?

LV: One of the interesting things about the UNFCCC is about procedural rights – the rights of non-state actors, citizens and NGOs to participate in UNFCCC processes. They’re constantly battling for these procedural rights, which in some ways we can think about as human rights- a right to be heard, a right to information, a right to participate in decision-making and access to justice. Although they were written into the text it’s almost one step forward, two steps back because when groups get access somewhere it’s taken away somewhere else. When NGOs are invited into meetings then they start to hold ‘informal informals’ – meetings where NGOs don’t have access and may be where all the decision-making happens.

HB: When you were presenting at the Warsaw Conference of the Parties (COP) last year, what was that about?

LV: It was a side event to the COP organised by Yale and the UN Institute on Training and Research about climate governance and human rights. I was presenting about access to justice for NGOs, and some of the hurdles that remain to access to justice, even in the Global North – and so it’s going to be even trickier in the Global South. So if people experience environmental harm- what kind of redress mechanisms are available to them, and do they see remedies or compensation of a sort? That’s something we’re increasingly going to have to think about with climate change.

It becomes very stark when you hear people’s own stories. I felt quite optimistic that the academic research is capturing what’s happening- we’re not quite as isolated in the ivory tower as you might think sometimes!

HB: Could you comment on the notion of an environmental refugee?

LV: In my undergraduate Global Environmental Politics class we talk about environmental security and what the linkage is between environmental threats and conflict- are they a cause of conflict, an exacerbating factor, or can it sometimes be the outcome of conflict as well?

But thinking about countries that may disappear and environmental refugees, again it’s a question of causality- there are so many links in a chain leading to someone becoming a refugee and courts are very uncomfortable with long causal chains, without a certain type of evidence to back that up.

HB: Is there anything that you think political scientists should focus on in establishing such a certain causal connection?

LV: Thinking about the causal connection is really to be done by scientists – and is being: Myles Allen in Oxford is developing some quite interesting ways of trying to think about how you can prove to a courtroom that a particular storm or flood was caused by climate change and not other things. I think some really interesting and tricky work like that could be done by political scientists in collaboration with scientists.

Our new Institute of Global Governance is going to do a great job in trying to bring people from different disciplines in thinking about the functioning of global governance in this area. There’s a growing literature in International Relations about the challenges to reaching agreement and I think the next year and a half before the 2015 Paris COP are going to be absolutely crucial. It’s about how to convince policy-makers that this challenge is a real one and in democracies that this is something that the public cares about. That has really fallen off the agenda quite a bit since 2008, it was quite a different picture before the financial crisis. There’s something in explaining the factors influencing whether climate change gets on the agenda or not.

I think there’s really interesting work to be done looking at the comparative level- so what are individual states doing and how effective is that to combat climate change? The UK Climate Change Act is a great example of that – it’s some of the most stringent legislation on GHGs. Whether it’s going to be lived up to is another thing, and that’s something again political science and socio-legal scholars can be doing that’s real.

 

References

Vanhala, Lisa. 2013. ‘The comparative politics of courts and climate change.’ Environmental Politics 22(3):447-474.

 

 

“Now for the Long Term”: The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations

By Lucy Phillips, on 6 April 2014

By Laetitia Sanchez Incera

"Now for the Long Term" speakers

“Now for the Long Term” speakers

On 26 February, the International Public Policy Review (IPPR) organised an event presenting the report “Now for the Long Term” by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. This event, which was chaired by Dr Colin Provost, gathered four sustainable development specialists: Professor Ian Goldin, Professor Paul Ekins, Michael Jacobs and Camilla Toulmin.

The talk began with Ian Goldin’s presentation of the report. He explained that the world today is at a crossroads: it has been experiencing the fastest growth ever over the last 25 years, but this growth is threatened by various accompanying and unintended consequences, such as climate change, soil erosion and increasing inequality. These issues remain a key source of frustration for many policy makers. With regards to the future, for them, the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but rather the gulf between knowledge and action; the difficulty in moving from policy to practice.

“Now for the Long Term” is composed of three sections. The first section comprises a summary of today’s biggest challenges, whilst the second considers the lessons of history. The report points to the role of crisis in generating change, and the existence of occasions when shared interests led to resolutions, such as in the creation of the European Union or agreements at Bretton Woods. The role of institutions are also emphasised, most particularly with regards their ability to foster international cooperation under common goals (e.g. the Millennium Development Goals). Despite the existence of several success stories, some trends continue to undermine the potential for international co-operation and policy making. Perhaps most importantly, democracy is increasingly “short-term,” limited by election cycles and distorted by powerful lobbies. The large number of institutions has led to disillusionment with their ability to bring about change, whilst the long-term characteristics of many issues means that it is increasingly difficult to identify cause and effect.

Having presented the major global issues and deliberated what we might learn from the past, the third section of the report looks to the future. It offers up a series of principles and practical recommendations that might just pave the way for the future we so covet. Suggestions include a focus on investment in younger generations, and a shaking up of existing institutions, making them more innovative and transparent. The importance of breaking the monopoly of governments seems particularly pertinent, with calls for the promotion of creative coalitions. A particularly forward-thinking example of such a coalition is the suggested ‘C-20 C-30 C-40’ which brings together countries, companies and cities over the issue of climate change. The final improvement, upon which the success of the above suggestions perhaps rests, is the creation of ‘shared’ global values – a common platform of understanding.

In response to Ian Goldin’s presentation, Michael Jacobs, Professor Ekins and Camilla Toulmin each made their comments. Michael Jacobs agreed with the assertion that efforts to deal with public goods require collective solutions, but he feared that the importance of public mobilisation had been underplayed.  The mobilisation of the public, he argued, is intrinsic to helping to restore governments’ lost authority, providing them with the leverage they need to act internationally. To support his argument, Jacobs contrasted the success of Gordon Brown’s popular ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign with the UN Copenhagen Summit on climate change, a disappointing Conference undermined by a notable lack of public mobilisation.

Whilst also a strong advocate of the creation of creative coalitions, Camilla Toulmin was particularly interested in understanding why people are reluctant to consider the “long-term”, and in identifying ways to reward those who do. She stressed that short-term or ‘myopic’ tendencies in banking and finance are particularly problematic. The banking sector remains highly sceptical of the long-term efficacy of carbon cutting policies, which unfortunately, translates into an aversion to change for the common good.

For Professor Ekins, the current state of politics makes it extremely difficult to promote the wellbeing of future generations. As regional powers have gained traction and influence, the conditions which led to cooperative success in past decades have been eroded. In spite of these difficulties, Ekins pointed to two areas which should be prioritised: the removal of subsidies that distort prices, and the protection of privacy, which is increasingly under threat.

Having deliberated over the various recommendations in the report, the speakers came round to discussing one of the most vexing global issues – climate change. Having taken a back-seat in recent years with the outbreak of the financial crisis, climate change is now back on the political agenda. As states meet to prepare for a Climate change conference in Paris in 2015, debates have arisen over the optimal extent of participation in climate policy.  Should participation be limited to the main polluters – China, the US, the EU and Japan? Or would this grouping erode global legitimacy, instead coming to be seen as a ‘conspiracy of polluters?’ Whilst the speakers might have disagreed over the issues embroiled in this upcoming conference, they were united in their belief that alongside the work of states and NGOs, public mobilization plays a vital role in giving momentum to these causes at such key points in time.

In all, the Oxford Martin Report marks an important first step in efforts to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Though many are aware of such issues, be it climate change or the ongoing proliferation of HIV, this report is devoted to actionable change through innovative and practical solutions. Whilst the speakers pointed to the considerable breadth of the report as a point of weakness, arguably it is this all-encompassing nature which also lends it it’s strength. The report also, quite uniquely, provides a framework for new and innovative multi-scale collaborations, beyond the assumed mantra of government-led change. Whilst its ‘real’ impact remains to be seen, the report has been very well received, providing a much needed shake-up to debates over global governance.

Sea change: Environmental refugees and “the defining challenge of our time”

By Claire McNear, on 13 March 2014

By Claire McNear

“It is not for the High Court of New Zealand to alter the scope of the Refugee Convention…. Rather that is the task, if they so choose, of the legislatures of sovereign states.”

So wrote New Zealand High Court judge John Priestley in his November 2013 denial of a rather unusual legal petition: a man from Kiribati was seeking to become the world’s first environmental refugee.

The Refugee Convention Priestley refers to is the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1952 international treaty establishing who is eligible for refugee status and what rights he or she is entitled to, most notably asylum. The Refugee Convention is the backbone of international refugee law today; in 2012 alone, 893,700 people submitted applications for asylum, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It was under this convention that Ioane Teitiota sought to remain in New Zealand. Teitiota first came to New Zealand in 2007. When his work visa expired in early 2013, he faced deportation back to his native Kiribati, along with his wife and their three children. Teitiota appealed, claiming in the Auckland High Court that he and his family would face “serious harm” and suffering if they were made to return.

Tarawa Lagoon in the capital of Kiribati, South Tarawa. The lagoon is heavily polluted, and visitors are advised to avoid its waters. Courtesy Luigi Guarino / Flickr

Tarawa Lagoon in the capital of Kiribati, South Tarawa. The lagoon is heavily polluted, and visitors are advised to avoid its waters. Courtesy Luigi Guarino / Flickr

The plight of Kiribati is a serious one. The central Pacific island nation, home to 100,000, is made up of 33 low-lying atolls, which at their highest point are just 2 meters above sea level. Faced with rising seas that have already caused widespread water contamination and crop damage, Kiribati teeters at the edge of catastrophe: its president has said that the entire nation may be uninhabitable in as little as 30 years. In October 2011, just months after issuing the nation a $20 million grant to devise methods to cope with climate change that was followed shortly thereafter by $2 million in emergency food aid, the World Bank published a report calling Kiribati “one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change,” citing rising seas, agricultural damage, and exposure to extreme weather events like cyclones. So great is the sense of impending crisis that the Kiribati government recently purchased a 6,000-acre tract in neighboring Fiji for agricultural, and perhaps future resettlement, purposes. Neighboring, that is, only in the sense that it one of the nearest significant landmasses in the Pacific Ocean: Fiji lies some 2,100 miles to the southwest, and is facing its own environmental and social crises for many of the same reasons as Kiribati.

Teitiota’s claims of the potential for harm on returning to Kiribati are not, then, without basis. But in order to qualify as a refugee under the UN’s Refugee Convention, a person must fear persecution upon returning home. Teitiota’s legal team attempted a novel tact: they argued that Teitiota was being “persecuted passively” by the environment. Furthermore, they argued, Teitiota could reasonably be thought to suffer from human persecution as well, because “climate change is believed to be caused by the pollution humans generate” – a proposition supported by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last year.

Teitiota’s lawyer argued that the international community’s refugee laws are outdated. “The refugee convention which came into effect at the end of the Second World War needs to be changed, to incorporate people who are fleeing climate catastrophe,” he told Radio New Zealand.

Kiribati is just one of a number of island nations whose existences are threatened by rising seas, among them the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Tokelau. The world’s oceans have risen an average of 3.2 millimeters each year since 1970, a rate that is expected to accelerate; scientists theorize that seas could rise by more than one meter by the end of the century.

The future of the Maldives, a nation of 338,000 that lies 250 miles off the southwest coast of India, looks much like that of Kiribati. The former Maldivian president, Mohamed Nasheed, has become a kind of self-appointed emissary on this count, traveling the globe to raise awareness of the Maldives’s plight. Given the combined effects of rising seas, overfishing, pollution, and overreliance on a tourist industry that might well vanish as waves wash away the white sand beaches and corrals bleach and die in acidified seas, Nasheed has put the odds of his grandchildren inheriting an inhabitable Maldives at 50–50.

It is not just a matter of rising seas. Another phenomenon linked to global warming might prove even more catastrophic: the rise of extreme weather events. Adding to the problem is the fact that more people around the world are moving to coastal areas, where they are more at risk of severe disasters like typhoons. In 2003, 3 billion people lived within 200 kilometers of a coastline; by 2025, this number is likely to double.

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank predicted that given the combined effects of losses to agriculture, fisheries, and tourism, the GDPs of Pacific island nations stand to decline by 15% by 2100. One of the first researchers to highlight the threats of dramatic sea level rise, Jodi Jacobson, drew on worst case scenarios about sea levels in 1988 to predict that there might be six times as many environmental refugees as political refugees in the coming years.

The UN’s high commissioner for refugees has called climate change–related displacement “the defining challenge of our time.”

The Gilbert Islands, Kiribati. Courtesy Charly W. Karl / Flickr

The Gilbert Islands, Kiribati. Courtesy Charly W. Karl / Flickr

Which brings us back to Iaone Teitiota’s argument for refugee status: that he is in fact being persecuted by other people, because climate change, with its resultant disasters for Kiribati, is a manmade effect, as the IPCC suggested in its report. Looking at this more closely, we can understand the argument another way. Teitiota, as a resident of a low-lying island nation all but doomed by global warming, is facing persecution at the hands of the residents of countries producing the CO2 that caused the climate change in the first place – no small claim when the world’s top 6 emitters contribute 64% of annual emissions. That is, significant CO2 producers in developed nations are persecuting non-major CO2 producers in the developing world who will suffer adverse effects as a result of emissions, and thus are subsequently responsible, in the case of New Zealand, for providing people like Teitiota and his family with a new, safer home: a kind of refugeeism as loss and damage. The New Zealand High Court rejected this argument, but more, it seems, on the grounds of insufficient jurisdiction than anything else.

Is the existing UN Refugee Convention insufficient to cover the needs of today’s world? If we open the door to environmental refugees, can we put in appropriate controls to protect the rights of host countries? One of the New Zealand judge’s rationales for denying asylum was that Teitiota’s position “does not appear to be different from that of any other Kiribati national,” meaning that to grant him asylum would mean potentially granting it to all citizens of Kiribati, and indeed to all people who could demonstrate that their homes and livelihoods were endangered by climate change. If asylum were to be granted, Judge Priestley wrote, “at a stroke, millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation, or the immediate consequences of natural disasters or warfare, or indeed presumptive hardships caused by climate change, would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention.” Judge Priestley demurred, stating that it is not the place of the New Zealand High Court to make such a decision – rather it is one that must be made by the international community, and more specifically the United Nations.

We might consider environmental refugees a new type of stateless person, who are afforded substantial protections in international law under a 1954 UN convention. If Kiribati and the Maldives have ceased to be habitable, as predictions hold they will in the coming decades, have the nations of Kiribati and the Maldives ceased to exist? There are other possibilities: we saw that the Kiribati government purchased land in Fiji to grow food, with the quiet suggestion that the land might serve as a new base for Kiribati residents should their current home become unlivable. The Kiribati government has also reportedly talked with a Japanese firm “about the possibility of constructing a floating island,” a Waterworld-esque possibility that is very much in vogue with today’s technocrats, and which would cost in the billions of dollars. (Kiribati has a GDP of $176 million.) Or should it be the case – will it be the case, as there is no indication that the threats these islands face will abate in the foreseeable future – that those forced by environmental changes to leave their homes over the coming decades take on new national identities? Even within the Kiribati government, views on this issue are divided. Rimon Rimon, a government spokesman, suggested that the government’s resources would be better spent teaching citizens the professional skills they will need to thrive in new homes abroad. It seems that the international community will be forced to make a decision about the validity and status of environmental refugees soon enough: others have submitted pleas for asylum as environmental refugees before, though none has been successful, and many more are sure to do so in the coming years as seas rise, storms intensify, and populations grow.

As for Ioane Teitiota? He is appealing the New Zealand High Court’s decision. Should that fail, “the family hopes an appeal to the Immigration Minister or the public is more successful.”